Link to an interview with blues. gr, the premier blues site in Greece, April 1, 2013
An edited version of the following appeared in the Joe Burns music column in the Cape Codder Oct. 10, 2013.
You began playing blues in St. Louis in the ‘60s, what was the blues scene like there back then?
St. Louis historically is one of the four main cities of the blues: Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit. The blues players traveled north and south to play in these cities on Highway 61.
St. Louis had (still has) a thriving music scene which was reflected in what you could hear on the radio. Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddly as well as a number of R&B styled artists got regular air time, so I had ample opportunity to hear the music. And there were 2 or 3 black-owned stations that played tons of deep soul, blues, R&B and jazz. Plenty to hear.
My first concert at age 14 was to go see Ike and Tina; the next was to see Jackie Wilson. I also used to go hang out at Booker’s Shoeshine Parlor, where us young white kids would pop nickels into Booker’s jukebox to hear Howlin’Wolf, Elmore James etc., while the old black men hanging out and drinking out of little paper bags joked around with each other and tolerated us.
In the 60’s, Ike and Tina, Albert King, Little Milton, Oliver Sain, Fontella Bass, Bobby Bland, Henry Townsend, Johnny Johnson, Chuck Berry, Larry Davis and others all either made their homes in or had strong connections to the city. Many of the sidemen made their home in St. Louis, as it was easy to travel north to Chicago, south to Memphis, west to Kansas City, east to Indianapolis and Gary IN. STL also saw a number of Arkansas and Texas-based players visiting the city. So there were plenty of active players and places to play… mostly for black players in black clubs on both sides of the Mississippi river.
East StL was/is a predominantly a black community, very much a wide open place to do what you want, when you want and this contributed greatly to the attraction of STL for black musicians. It was not uncommon for players to play a high school dance or club in STL MO, then go across the river to an after hours club and play until 5 or so in the morning. Ike and Tina and Oliver Sain played quite a bit of the high school circuit.
Although there always were white blues players around, the late 60’s saw the real emergence of white players as a result of the folk revival and the rediscovery of many old time blues guys. Much of the early interest was focused on acoustic blues, but then as the Brits started their US blues invasion, the electric scene really picked up.
The bottom line was, there were plenty of places to hear blues in its various forms being played by players of both races. In that time I heard BB King, Albert King, Bukka White, Johnny Shines, Muddy Waters , Butterfield Blues Band, Taj Mahal and others that don’t come to mind right now. The STL blues scene was one that showcased local and national players of both races. It is still very much integrated, both in terms of players and in terms of the audience. That said, some of the clubs are best described as “gritty,” while there are other more mainstream clubs featuring local and national acts.
I was very fortunate in that my circle in those days included several serious players and scholars. Dave MacKenzie and Doug McCleod, both noted blues players, were people I knew, as was Bill Greensmith, a British ex-pat writing about the blues from his new home in STL. I learned quite a bit about blues history from being around them.
You performed with blues legends Johnny Johnson, and Henry Townsend, what was that like?
Well, as mentioned previously, there were a number of players around who had performed and/or recorded with any number of artists, so he was sort of one of the crowd. Before the Chuck Berry birthday bash that featured Keith Richards and the Cape’s own Joey Spampinato, Johnny Johnson was seen as just another player who had played with some of the greats. Keep in mind, Chuck Berry was around too, so were plenty of other ‘names’, so his old piano player was not seen as a star. He was fun to play with and a pleasant person to be around. Chuck Berry's birthday celebration really helped to boost his fortunes.
Henry Townsend was a quiet man, very pleasant, and an accomplished guitarist and pianist. Henry played a Flying V guitar those days, not what you’d expect from an elderly gentleman. I got to play with him a few times, notably a Mardi Gras pub crawl in about zero degree weather. My friend Ron Edwards, an exceptional guitarist in his own right, was his usual sideman and I sometimes accompanied them if I wasn’t playing elsewhere. Henry was the classic blues man. If you rehearsed a tune, there was a good possibility it was not going to be played at the concert. Timing? Well, 12 bars, 13, 10, who’s counting? You had to pay attention.
Henry was full of stories. He had been there, done that, with many of the major players that we listen to today. Along with Sunnyland Slim and Ike Turner, one of those guys who has contributed hugely to blues music while their importance remains under the radar.
There’s a sophistication and maturity in your latest CD “Blues in Paradise” that isn’t often found in many contemporary blues bands who does the arranging? Is it a group effort?
I do all the writing and arranging. That said, I try to play to the strengths of the musicians I am working with. As regards solos, I generally tried to let the musicians go on their own, although I did discuss the mood of the tune and what I wanted to hear. Then it was a case of choosing the best effort. Working out harmonies tended to be more of a group effort as ideas were tossed out and used or discarded, but we also came to the studio with much of that work done. Also, Tom Tracy, the recording engineer, is hugely talented and was able to offer some good practical advice, as well as adding bass and vocals to some tunes.
There’s a lot of original material in “Blues in Paradise” and your earlier CD “Hurricane” is all your own material. Much of it seems to stretch the boundaries of what many people perceive as the blues. Do you find the conventional blues format limiting or do you just enjoy exploring its possibilities?
Steve Morgan and the Kingfish is not a typical blues band. When asked to describe what we play, I usually refer to it as jazzy modern blues and R&B that will make you want to dance. Longer than “blues band”, but more accurate.
The blues tent is much larger, much more inclusive than most see it. R&B, jazz, some rock, soul… To me all variations of the blues. Lots of room for experimentation. The trick is to push the envelope but keep it bluesy.
I don’t find the typical blues form limiting at all, but I also don’t see it as all there is. Muddy and Wolf turned Delta blues in a new direction. BB and Bobby brought sanctified vocals to the music. I’m not them, but I don’t see why I should be a slave to convention either. I’m not a purist in that I expect to hear (or play) only a 12 bar blues. I like interesting chord choices and arrangements and love vocal harmonies, and R&B and some jazz influences are what is behind much of that.
I wrestle with the boundaries of blues, either my own perceptions or what I think are others’ perceptions. I have a solid understanding of the forms and history of the blues, but in the real world, I have never walked behind a mule pulling a plow, etc., so my take is different from many of those who came before me. Many years ago, I learned a number of jazz-oriented chords, and these tend to show up in my writing. All of the tunes on Hurricane and all but one on Blues in Paradise were written by me, and that one cover, Money, is really turned on its head in my arrangement.
Also, the guitar-driven rock-blues overwhelming us today is pretty derivative and in some cases, boring. How many years are we going to do this? That encouraged me to write my own tunes and go my own way. When I listen today, I hear too much “guitar god wanna-be”, mostly in the Stevie Ray, Hendrix, Robin Trower, Jimmy Page, sort of vein, and too little Muddy, BB, Albert, Elmore… I explored the roots of the music. Some of these guys need to do so as well, then feature the song rather than the guitar solo.
The Kingfish have been around over 20 years now. Personnel have changed, has the style?
As a matter of fact, the first weekend in November is the 21st anniversary of our first gig at the Chatham Sands in W. Chatham. The players on that first gig were myself on guitar and vocals, Tony Kahn on bass, Gary Locke on guitar and Pete Putnam on drums. Other than Tony, the personnel shifted quite a bit in the first years. Cape Cod is not blues central and I was not well known or plugged in, so finding blues players was an issue.
The Kingfish players included the late Peter Noyes on harmonica, Steve Robinson, drums, Whitney Brown on vocals, and a few other players whose names do not come to mind right now. Due to a changing cast of characters, the early Kingfish tended to play simpler arrangements than we do now. As time went on I was able to put my ideas and original tunes into the playlist, which led to the recording of Hurricane and Blues in Paradise.
One thing has not changed. I am an ensemble player, accustomed to working in a band, and I generally write and play dance music, not solo material. The band is pretty energetic as are the tunes. In a live setting, the jazzier more contemplative tunes may not get an airing unless we see a reason to start out in a more relaxed vein. A CD has more latitude in that regard.
Who’s in the current lineup? Can you tell us a little about the members?
Ed Wanamaker has been the drummer for over four years now, very solid, rock steady, really exceptional. For a number of years, he played behind his ex-wife, Julie Charland, who is now part of Toast and Jam. Bryant Edwards, congas and vocals, has been with me two years. Bryant is a great singer and showman. A wonderful guy to have in the band. He was formerly one of the lead singers in Avenue X. Roe Osborn has been playing with me about a year now, and brings great bass playing and harmony singing to the band. His backup vocals along with Bryant’s, have really helped the band get where we want to be. Roe also plays with Bert Jackson and Tim Sweeny. Pete Mann on piano and organ is the newest member. We had been looking around for years for a good keyboard player and suddenly Pete dropped in our lap. A huge find for us.
I am lucky to have some really exceptional and fun players working with the Kingfish. John Wolf on trombone is a former member of Roomful of Blues and has played with many name acts. Incredible soloist. Berke McKelvey plays reeds and woodwinds, typically tenor, alto, and soprano saxes and flute. Hugely creative player. Berke is also an instructor at Berklee School of Music and plays often with Chandler Travis. Paul Lesniak, tenor sax, is an excellent soloist and a lot of fun on stage. He also plays with Bert Jackson as well as the Rip It Ups. Nick Suchecki also plays tenor and baritone sax and flute with us often when he is not at school. He is a younger player, full of fire and another enjoyable player to hear. Paul Dinsmore, last but absolutely not least, adds trumpet and great vocal chops to the mix when he is not onstage with the Rip It Ups.
Depending on the gig, meaning money and size of the stage, Steve Morgan and the Kingfish play as a five piece with no horns, or 6,7,8, piece with the horn section. The Kingfish demonstrate a depth and range of material not typically seen in a blues band.
For more info or to buy CDs, the band website is www.stevemorganmusic.com
CDs can also be purchased from www.cdbaby.com, I-tunes and Amazon.
Steve is also the host of the Thursday Morning Blues Cruise with Steve Morgan on WOMR 92.1FM WFMR 91.3FM and www.womr.org on alternating Thursdays from 9:30-12:30.